05/05/2010 11:00PM

Three Oaks make good foundation


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It's a choice group, the trainers who have won three or more runnings of the coveted Kentucky Oaks. At the top, with five, stands W. C. "Woody" Stephens. Right behind, with four, are B.A. "Plain Ben" Jones and D. Wayne Lukas. And at three wins, without aid of initials or a nickname, comes Jerry Hollendorfer, who snagged his most recent Oaks last week when Blind Luck nailed Evening Jewel on the money.

Three victories in the Kentucky Oaks. That looks pretty good on a resume, especially when you've won another 5,000 or so races on the side. Hollendorfer won his first Oaks in 1991 with Lite Light and his second in 1996 with Pike Place Dancer, so it's not like he just recently figured it out. He had been pointing Blind Luck for that race ever since she proved herself over a route of ground last fall in the Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita. There were ups and downs along the way, but he got her to Churchill Downs at the top of her form, and then she won it by a couple of inches, giving her trainer more of a thrill than he really needed.

"She is game, and she cut it pretty close," said Hollendorfer, who also owns Blind Luck in partnership with George Todaro, John Carver, and Peter Abruzzo. "But that's okay. I can take it. I'm still a young guy."

Hollendorfer is 63, which gives you an idea of how winning the Kentucky Oaks makes you feel. Now that the trainer is back home in California, fresh challenges await, beginning on Saturday in the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, in which Hollendorfer must figure out how to beat the returning Hollywood Gold Cup champ, Rail Trip, with Dakota Phone.

It's not like he hasn't tried. Dakota Phone went after Rail Trip four times last season. In the first three, Rail Trip beat him a nose, a half, and a head. The fourth time around, in the Gold Cup, Dakota Phone bailed out the back as Rail Trip romped, but who could blame him? A guy can only bang his head against the same wall so many times.

"Rail Trip is the quality of the race, even though he's been off a long time," Hollendorfer noted. "We do get four pounds from him this time, so we'll try to look at that in a positive way."

In fact, four pounds is twice as much as Dakota Phone has ever gotten from Rail Trip, if that can make a difference. What lingers, though, is the uncharacteristically rotten race Dakota Phone ran in the Oaklawn Handicap - the day after Blind Luck took the Fantasy - when he pressed the pace and finished up the track to Duke of Mischief.

"I'm gonna blame myself for losing that race," Hollendorfer said. "I tried to make the horse do something he doesn't want to do, which is run up close to the pace. I felt the race was devoid of speed, but trying to change the style of my horse was a mistake."

Um, okay. Your witness.

Dakota Phone, a 5-year-old gelding, needs to win something soon. It has been 18 months since he took a little stakes race in Northern California. True, he has won more than $400,000, and the Oaklawn flop interrupted a series of noble defeats, which included the San Antonio Handicap in February when he all but had the race won. Then, in a blink, Richard's Kid slipped through inside to catch him at the wire.

The LeRoy, at 1 1/16 miles, was created by Hollywood Park to give Spectacular Bid a race to win in May of 1980. He did, by seven lengths, while carrying 132 pounds.

Very good horses like Precisionist, Skywalker, Ruhlmann, and Siphon added their names to the list, but lately the winners have suffered by comparison. Somehow, the LeRoy has held onto both its value and its Grade 2 status, and there was a stretch earlier in the decade when a victory translated well to the Gold Cup later in the meet, with winners like Total Impact, Sky Jack and Futural. Last year, Ball Four won going wire to wire, with Rail Trip second and Dakota Phone third.

"I'm making an educated guess that it was my instructions that caused him to lose in Arkansas, but I don't think he'll remember," Hollendorfer said. "It also could have been he didn't like the dirt surface as much as I thought he would. So we've got plenty of excuses to look at if we want to."

Hollendorfer said that last part with a laugh, with the lightness of a man who had just, well, won his third Kentucky Oaks. Do that, and you get to feast on the feeling for at least a little while.

"The fans back there are huge fans of racing and love horses," Hollendorfer said. "I guess I could safely say more than in California. The most amazing thing for me was the difference from the first time I won the Oaks. Certainly, it was a big deal. But now it's a monstrous deal. I wasn't quite prepared for how much more they make out of that race now.

"I'm pretty happy to be amongst that group who won three," Hollendorfer added. "The best news is the filly got home last Sunday and was pretty bouncy coming off the plane. So it looks like she came out of it very well."